Queen's Gambit


This page written circa 1 January, 2021.

While Beth Harmon is fictitiously revolutionising the history of human chess, besting all males Russian and American while looking more attractive than any real chess player of any gender ever has, AlphaGo is revolutionising the present world of computer chess-playing the way no machine ever has. Open-source Stockfish once ruled chess, but it was thrashed by Deepmind's Alpha. Watching some of the Alpha-Stockfish games, Alpha literally exudes confidence, a strange thing for a human to perceive in a game where you know attitude is not having any effect at all as it might have with human players.

Ever noticed how life can be like playing many chess games at once? I am officially eligible to retire next year. One can retire any time of course, but after May 2021 I am eligible for the government's old-age pension, and after February 2022 I can collect the gratuity that is paid in NZ in lieu of "long service leave" familiar to Australians, and ever-increasing annual leave familiar to some Americans. Oh fuck, I must be old.

Anya Taylor-Joy also played Emma in a recent film of the Austen classic. I watched Emma in close conjunction with Looking for Alibrandi, a lovely film set in the era and filmed in the places I grew up. Comparing the two brought home to me how little choice people once had when it came to aquaintances and potential spouses, even if born wealthy. In the second half of the 21st century life opened up for the likes of Beth, Josie Alibrandi, and me. Coming from nowhere in particular, we all went plenty somewhere and met lots of people.

The problem with retirement is that 'retiring', in the sense of stopping work, has a significant tendency to shorten your life and increase your risk of boredom. Indeed, figuring out a retirement that maximises the happiness-time integral is much more complicated than regular life jumps that require one only to choose a location in which you fancy living, and find an employment that appeals. How to stay engaged and have fun?

I have a marvellous group of research students at the moment. Marcus is finishing off his PhD on our Acoustic Vector-corrected Network Analyser. I am particularly proud of it because there is nothing else like it on the planet. Sadly it is rather ahead of its time and I fear we will both be dead and gone before it comes to be appreciated. Most of my group work on battery modelling, where we have made so many discoveries we might completely disrupt the battery modeling business. So much in fact, it is hard to get published. We know so much that nobody else knows or appreciates, but it is not so easy to monetise such knowledge. [We tried to thank Lagasse and Morrison whose papers underpin the AVNA and our battery models, but they were both dead and gone before their work was appreciated. Just by the way.] Nevertheless, it is all tremendous fun.

This burst of research joy is tempered by the decline in fun that is had by university employees the world over. I started this thread years ago and summarised some of it in Omnishambles. The university situation mirrors the politics that leads to the likes of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson running two of the largest enterprises on the planet, a debacle that would be rejected as implausible if filmed as fiction (much as our battery work is rejected as implausible despite being repeatably demonstrated). My colleague Bill is very proud of the fact that not a single one of his grad students ever went into academia. Sims's book Bullshit Towers tells us how much worse NZ universities will get if they continue to follow the Australian model, while The Fall of the Faculty shows that it is the same in all but the top US universities. The lesson here is that my old dream of not-quite-ever retiring from university life is a deception enclosing a nightmare.

What then does the future look like? First semester 2021 will be largely consumed teaching Analog Electronics and embedded-microcontroller Mechatronics, and I love both of those subjects. The borders do not look like they will open as soon as expected, with new strains in the UK and elsewhere and quarantine leaks in Australia. With fingers crossed for a local bubble with Sydney, I have booked six weeks of leave in winter, being wet and cold in Hamilton. Summers in Hamilton, our garden, and Hamilton Gardens are lovely.

Flatteringly, my grad students express concern and anger at the possibility I might finish up before them. I do not want to leave either, so the hope is for me to become a part-time member of staff, but importantly with no teaching duties, so no angst. I can see perhaps a quarter spent in Sydney every year, and two or one spent in research at Waikato U. Kay would have us travel for another quarter. It's just a shame I hate travelling so much. Kay is not going to get me into an RV. Maybe something more pleasant; living in Sydney in the studio has convinced me that a tiny house is practical, and one of our favourite channels on Youtube has shown a very mobile one. I'd add roof water collection, skylights, tilt on the solar panels, a dishwasher, washing machine... .

There is one more thing that I can see clearly. I need projects! I miss fixing, inventing, and building things with technical friends. Not enough of this in Hamilton. I need to incorporate more pleasure-time working with my friends on decent projects.

At the end of TQG, Beth Harmon has a marvellous scene in Russia. It provides an excellent ending. Nevertheless, it highlights that she has reached a jump point in her life too.

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